The Night Without an End: Watching 26/11 Unfold From My Window

First Person

The Night Without an End: Watching 26/11 Unfold From My Window

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Standing at my window sipping a cup of tea, I watch in awe as painters put the final touches on the elaborate new facade of the Nariman House terrace. It’s hard to believe that this November will mark 10 years since the building was battered with bullets on 26/11. The main dome of the Taj, once visible from where I stand, is now hidden because of new buildings. So much has changed over the decade, yet the experience of living through the ordeal comes back to me as if it were only yesterday.

Paint cans and rollers strewn across the living room floor. Unopened cartons, wrapped furniture, all tied together in the centre of the room; covered in plastic blankets. It had barely been a week since my mother, younger brother, and I had moved into this apartment, that overlooked the magnificent dome of the Taj. I had just returned from college, the painters were clearing up for the day, and we laid out some newspapers on the floor for a dinnertime picnic. The TV, set up temporarily in the adjacent bedroom, was blaring away.

As we sat down to eat, the noise of firecrackers in the distance made hearing the TV difficult, so we simply turned up the volume. Living in Mumbai, you expect people to burst their stock of Diwali crackers for weeks after the festival has passed. Mum was returning from the kitchen with a refill of rotis, when suddenly there was a loud explosion – similar to the noise made by a Diwali rocket, but she insisted that she felt the floor vibrate and this had to be something else, something more intense.

We dismissed her response as an overreaction, but soon after there were reports of shootings at the nearby Leopold Cafe. At first, like everyone, we thought it was a gang war.

My brother dismissed her story as a figment of over-imagination. But from there on, things flew into panic.

We hurried to look outside our window, a few residents had gathered in the colony. My mum insisted that I check out what was going on. By the time I had reached the foyer of the building, the watchmen told me that the main gate has been closed and police had asked residents to be careful. “Some people have ‘sniper guns’, stay away from windows facing the front of the building,” said the watchman.

It seemed unreal. What could have been a bunch of firecrackers, or possibly kids playing with Diwali pistols, were actually armed men running amok with rifles?

building

Morning came with an unnerving silence.

Image Credits: Shakti Pherwani

Given that both our living room and bedroom were front-facing, I hurried to share this information. While I was in the lift, one of the gunmen on foot passing by in the alley across had made a shot at my mother and brother, who were nosily hanging at the window. (News reports later suggested that this was the point at which terrorists in a jeep came by and threw a bomb at the petrol pump outside our building gate, which miraculously never went off.)

I entered the house to relay the urgency, but the shot had already been made. My mother said she’d heard a high-pitched noise and was confident that a bullet had just missed her. My brother dismissed her story as a figment of over-imagination. But from there on, things flew into panic.

Being the daughter of an army man, my mother went into quick curfew protocol. We turned out all the lights and made our way to the kitchen, the only room that wasn’t front-facing. Quickly locating a few stubs of candles, we began clearing the kitchen from all the dinnertime mess, when we heard a man wailing in the distance “Help! Somebody Help!” I still remember feeling this dreadful churning in my stomach – something had gone horribly wrong.  

Against our best instincts, we rushed to the main door to identify the source of screaming and see if we could offer any help, but the building power was turned out and the corridors were in complete darkness. We heard someone running up the stairwell, and the screaming only got louder.

window

Not only was the glass shattered but the point of entry of a second bullet had cut a hole through the aluminium frame of the last window.

Image Credits: Shakti Pherwani

We later learnt that a couple living in the building across from ours had been escorted to the flat above us by their househelp, as a safety measure – it was further away from the petrol pump. But when they switched on the lights, and came to the window to have a peek outside, they were shot at. It was their son who had reached the flat to find the deceased couple covered in blood and incessantly screamed for help.

I’d never felt so helpless in my life. The instinct for self-preservation wants you to stay put, but the instinct to be humane makes you want to help.

From here on, what had seemed like a bad dream, only became more real. News began to come in that we were in the midst of a full-blown terror attack. Holed up in the kitchen, we got our updates via texts from friends.  

We then heard that the terrorists had intruded Nariman House – a building we assumed was in a far-off lane. The news channels that were naively broadcasting moment-to-moment relays of the incident, had asked people in Colaba to turn off their WiFi and be wary of line-tapping; the terrorists were communicating with their leader through wireless devices and networks. With each passing moment, the situation became more intense. We decided to sleep in the kitchen for the night. We made makeshift floor beds, like at summer camp, while the candle on the counter continued to wane.

commander

The instinct for self-preservation wants you to stay put, but the instinct to be humane makes you want to help.

Image Credits: Shakti Pherwani

But we should have known that there would be no peace on this night of horrors.

Suddenly, there was banging on the main door. “Mumbai Police!” someone called out. I tiptoed to the door, put the chain on it, and reluctantly turned the knob. The officer warned us not to open the door to anyone after this, because the terrorists might be spread across the area. And to stay away from our windows.

At 12.30 am, as we lay facing the kitchen door, we suddenly saw a scanning torch light reflection on the wall. It moved quickly, and then flashed a few times. Utter panic struck as my mother speculated that the terrorists must be hunting for empty homes to squat in. Anything could happen from this moment on. Unable to sit still, I got through the night by making sprints to the window every hour or so to watch for any movement. My younger brother stayed put, holding trustingly onto a statuette of Lord Ganesh. Texting friends fell asleep at some point, and the updates stopped flowing in.

Morning came with an unnerving silence. You couldn’t hear the usual cacophony of the birds, the rusty leaves being swept by brooms, or the buzzing of cars passing by.  

night_shots

News began to come in that we were in the midst of a full-blown terror attack.

Image Credits: Shakti Pherwani

Around 10 am, upon my mother’s insistence, we clipped multiple bedsheets around the window (for some odd reason it was jammed, we’d later learn why). We could not be sitting ducks with an open invitation for the terrorists to come and occupy this vacant-looking home. In that moment of daring, we also turned on the TV to check what was happening on the news.

A sudden knock at the door made us freeze in our places yet again. We turned everything off and went scurrying back into the kitchen, speculating about what or who was beyond that door: Could it be the security guard? Or the domestic help? Or a brazen terrorist?

We tiptoed to the peephole and recognised our neighbour from across the hall. He informed us that most of the residents had left at daybreak to go to friends’ homes, and his family and ours were possibly the only ones remaining. He offered for us to come over and stay with them until the ordeal was over – but we were more comfortable staying put. We’d also just learnt that Nariman House, the building which was under siege, wasn’t many lanes away from our house – it was actually diagonally opposite our main window. Fuck!

As the day went by, we remained on edge. We’d hear intermittent shooting in the distance. Friends and relatives would text snippets of information to us: about the hostages in the hotels, the CST shootings, terrorists escaping in a police car. Was this the same jeep that came around to throw the bomb at the petrol pump, I wondered.  

My mother tried to distract us. She told us about the times she was in the middle of a war with my grandfather and experienced total blackouts. By late afternoon, I was lying on the kitchen floor trying to concentrate on a book and found myself romanticising the situation I was in. Having always wanted to be a writer, here was finally one of those “experiences” all writers talk about. I thought about Anne Frank, her diary being one my favourite books and felt an odd kinship with her.

The operation got over fairly quickly, and by early noon, the news of the last terrorist in Nariman House having been executed was confirmed.

I also found myself suddenly taking stock of the life I’d lived so far – and the many, many things still left to be done. It made me think of what it must feel like being in a prison cell, cut off from the world. But my morose thoughts were interrupted by what sounded like a series of gunshots in the distance, probably from what was unfolding at the Taj.

By sunset the neighbour checked in on us again, inviting us to sleep at their home for the night. He suggested it might feel better to have more people around; their apartment was out of direct shooting range. My mother decided to take him up on the offer, though we were still unsure if it was the best idea to leave the house empty. What if the terrorists hopped across the roofs to take shelter in this “empty flat” they’d been watching for the last 24 hours?

Late that evening, the police had installed huge searchlights in our compounds to keep watch on the happenings in the radius of Nariman House, making it difficult to fall asleep with all that light blaring in. By morning, this would expand into a proper operation. We woke up to some commotion on the roads: cops were milling around and friends told me that there was news that the NSG was to carry out a rescue operation and complete the evacuation of Nariman House.

We decided to return to our apartment on the morning of November 28, around 7 am, opening the main door as eerily as in a horror film. As the rescue mission began, helicopter sounds echoed, and I tried to stick my head out of the kitchen window, twisting it far left to watch the action unfold. The noises got louder, as did the sounds of shots, and I was pulled inside by mum. But I followed the movements reflected in the marble border around our window. I watched closely as the men came down the helicopter rope and took over the building by aerial entrance.

The operation got over fairly quickly, and by early noon, the news of the last terrorist in Nariman House having been executed was confirmed – counter-balanced by news of the rabbi and his wife having been killed. The area was declared safe, and soon after, everything was back to “normal”. There were people on the road again. Press vehicles and commander trucks added to the commotion. Yet, the noise in the air, signalling the life might be returning to normal, had never felt more comforting.

As I finally reached to take off the bed sheets curtaining the windows, we discovered that the reason the windows were jammed open. The high-pitched noise that my mom had heard the first evening was from a bullet that had passed through the three layers of sliding windows. Not only was the glass shattered but the point of entry of a second bullet had cut a hole through the aluminium frame of the last window. This made the whole ordeal so much more real; mum had a close save indeed.

We also discovered a speck in the wall where one of the bullets might have made contact; although we never did find the piece of shrapnel from either bullet that had entered our home.

As I stand here watching the twinkling lights on the terrace across mine, and reflect on the years that have come to pass since the incident, I find that my life has been shaped by 26/11 in so many ways. The building in the distance – once beaten with bullets, curtains hanging in distress – a bare shell of a home, stands tall as an example of resilience. It’s taught me to appreciate tiny victories, and to dust myself off and stand up after every fall.

Man, we made it!

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